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Protecting San Diego's Unsheltered

 March 19, 2021 at 10:00 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 Protecting San Diego's unsheltered, a deadly crash reminds us of the risks facing this vulnerable community. What will San Diego's new mayor do about it? As we see another partial reopening during the pandemic local small businesses, describe a year on the financial brink and the governor goes on offense with the recall campaign, likely Gavin Newsome takes a more active role in defending his record. I'm Andrew Bowen and the KPBS round table starts. Now. [inaudible] welcome to our discussion of the week's top stories. I'm Andrew Bowen. Joining me on this remote edition of the KPBS round table are Lisa Halverstadt, who covers local government for voice of San Diego KPBS, investigative reporter, Claire Tresor and Merissa Lagos' political correspondent for public media station. KQBD tragedy struck San Diego's homeless community. This week, a man suspected of driving under the influence, drove his car into a homeless encampment under a bridge on B street. Speaker 1: 01:07 Downtown three people were killed and six others were injured. The crash has put a spotlight on the vulnerability of San Diego's unsheltered population and on mayor Todd Gloria's response to the homelessness crisis. He took office pledging to change the strategy enacted by his predecessor. So how's that going voice of San Diego reporter. Lisa Halverstadt joins us now to help explain Lisa, welcome to the round table. Thank you for having me now Monday's crash was really horrific, but it's far from a one-off incident. What are some of the other dangers that people face when they're living on the streets of San Diego? Speaker 2: 01:42 Well, we all know that unsheltered people are exposed to the elements, but they are also constantly exposed to danger assaults. That's robberies are rampant, um, and back in 2016, a killer even preyed upon homeless people. And then in 2017, we had a hepatitis, a outbreak that really hammered the homeless population here. More recently, we've had the COVID-19 pandemic, which homeless individuals have been hit harder with. And also as we were reminded this week car crashes, in addition to this horrific one, um, two other homeless people were recently killed in a car accident in Escondido and earlier, Andrew, you yourself had tweeted about Bernadette grant Lang who San Diego police officers actually struck and killed when they were responding to a burglary a couple of years ago. Speaker 1: 02:29 Now homelessness has long been at the center of San Diego politics. How would you characterize former mayor Kevin Faulkner's homelessness strategy? Speaker 2: 02:38 The former mayor really did try to ramp up, um, affordable housing development and added more shelter beds during, and after that hepatitis a outbreak I referenced, but he also really ramped up police enforcement. Uh, he dramatically increased enforcements of violations that are associated with homelessness, such as encroachment, blocking a sidewalk, illegal, putting up a tent without permission. And as he headed out of office, he became more blunt about what his goal was with that. He told me that he wanted homeless people to accept those services, or essentially face the consequences from the police. Speaker 1: 03:13 When Todd Gloria was just a candidate for mayor, what was he saying about how he would handle homelessness differently than Faulkner Speaker 2: 03:21 Mayor? Gloria has said that he really wants to refocus the city on national best practices and dial back that police enforcement, that sword under former mayor Faulkner and is really, uh, an approach that is frowned upon among experts in the field, um, who say that it actually can do more to keep people on the street, then compel them to get off. Mayor. Gloria has also said he really wants to focus on providing more long-term housing and other resources versus more quick fixes that when he was campaigning and still today has criticized mayor Faulconer for pursuing no Speaker 1: 03:54 In your reporting, you obtain some data from the city related to so-called abatements or, or sweeps, uh, explain what these are and what conclusions we can draw from those numbers that you got. Speaker 2: 04:05 So city workers on a regular basis team up with lease officers to essentially move homeless San Diego guns away from the camps that they're staying in and clean up the area. So I was really interested to see, you know, obviously because our mayor Gloria had campaigned on some different approaches, what was happening here. And what I found was that the number of the so-called abatements really hasn't changed that much since Gloria took office, though, uh, when I interviewed him and talked to him about this, he did tell me that he recently directed city workers to stop doing these operations at night or during inclement weather. And to really take care of with homeless individuals property, because one feature of these clean up efforts is that, you know, many homeless individuals in the years I've been writing about homelessness have described how city workers will come and do one of these abatements when they're not present. And they might lose property that are quite valuable to them. Uh, and so mayor Gloria says he wants to make sure that individuals aren't losing their property. We shall see Speaker 1: 05:07 You also report that encampments are clusters of tents. Like the one that we saw on B street that this driver ended up crashing into on Monday are growing in San Diego. Do we know why Speaker 2: 05:19 I've really dialed back and forth during the pandemic, even under former mayor Faulkner. And in some ways they've, they've really been forced to because many misdemeanors, including those that often are aimed at homeless people aren't eligible for jail time. There also have been fewer shelter, beds and other services. There's also obviously been speculation that homelessness itself may be growing during the pandemic though. We just don't have the data to support that just yet. One thing I would also note is that, you know, in this particular instance, there was rain in the forecast and homeless individuals, like any of us want to get out of the elements. And so it's really common for prior to rain, for people to just pack under bridges, to try to keep dry Speaker 1: 06:00 This week. A group of advocates called on the city and County to put more unsheltered people into hotel rooms. What is project room key and why has San Diego not made better use of it? Speaker 2: 06:12 So project room key is a state initiative pushed by governor Gavin Newsome, uh, early in the pandemic actually to put homeless individuals up in hotel rooms. When Newsome rolled out his initiative last spring, San Diego County had already ramped up its program, which then focused mostly on people who'd been exposed to COVID or had COVID plus a few hundred rooms for homeless people. The County, because its program had already rolled out as Newsome was making his announcement. They did not seek FEMA reimbursements, federal reimbursements that are being used to support these programs, but that has not stopped, uh, the pressure from advocates. Um, and now more recently, the Biden administration announced that it would offer a 100% reimbursement rate. There was also an outbreak at the convention center shelter. All of this is really just increase the pressure. Um, and now the city is actually seriously looking at this option as well, but the challenge will be to find agencies that can provide the supportive services that city and County leaders think are necessary to make these hotel programs work. And that's been a really limiting factor from their perspective as well. Speaker 1: 07:20 This week, we also heard from four city council members, uh, offering a memo calling for some changes to the city's homelessness strategy, explain what they want to see and how it relates to this, uh, non congregate setting for shelters. Explain what that means. Speaker 2: 07:35 The four councilmen, three Democrats, and one Republican one to develop a non congregate shelter program to take advantage of those FEMA reimbursement funds that I just talked about before and in their memo, what they talked about, you know, essentially that service providers have just put in the maximum effort since the pandemic started last spring and have suggested that local businesses and services and tourism workers who've been impacted by the pandemic could perhaps also be deployed, um, to really help with the service capacity and serve people, not maybe just in hotels, but maybe other types of facilities to the memo mentioned possibly looking at vacant office spaces, or even putting a call out to families, asking that they take in, uh, homeless individuals or families. The idea behind this seems to be really, to get all hands on deck, to take advantage of this funding opportunity from the federal government. And hopefully use that to reduce homelessness in San Diego. Speaker 1: 08:36 We often hear elected officials say if only people experiencing homelessness would accept the services that we're offering them, except shelter beds. Then we could get them off the streets and into a safer environment eventually into housing. Is it really that simple? Speaker 2: 08:50 No, it's not that simple. If I walked up to you tomorrow and you'd never me before, and I offered you a shelter bed, would you necessarily take me up on it? You know, what I found reporting on this issue for years is that homeless people have a lot of reasons that they may not initially say yes, for example, many homeless people have told me that they were concerned about the COVID outbreak at the convention center. And that that kept them from entering the convention center shelter. Um, people are also worried about thefts or even assaults in shelters or often are unsure of whether they can trust the person, offering the shelter bed and the promise of resources that might come with it. If they go into that shelter bed, are they necessarily going to be connected with housing? Maybe they're leaving behind a community on the street. Speaker 2: 09:37 People may also have health conditions and be concerned about, um, including mental health conditions that make them more anxious about being in a shelter den shelter environment, just like anybody else, homeless people have their own preferences on the best place to stay. And, and really experts say that the key to success is finding the destination that works for them. I have known of multiple instances where people on the streets have developed communities with one another where they're actually supporting somebody that has trouble getting around, or, you know, in one case I, um, spent some time with a man in encampment, in, um, mission Valley who actually had a kitchen and was cooking for people. Definitely. He was not interested in shelter, but I have to wonder what the answer would have been if he was offered a home and he could be the family cook. Essentially. Speaker 1: 10:29 I've been speaking with Lisa, Halverstadt a reporter for voice of San Diego. Lisa, thanks for joining us. Thank you so much for having me. Local businesses have waited a long time for restrictions to ease on just how many people they can serve in person restaurants, bars, salons, and retail shops are now operating in the red tier as the local COVID-19 situation continues to improve, but many did not make it this far KPBS investigative reporter Claire tracer is part of a special series marking one year since the coronavirus shutdowns began. Her story focuses on our small businesses. Welcome to the round table. Claire. Thank you. Let's start with the numbers. Do we have any estimates on just how many jobs have been lost locally or how many businesses have collapsed since last March? Speaker 2: 11:14 Yeah, it's something that, um, it's, you know, in terms of businesses that have, that have closed, we're still trying to figure out exactly. Um, the San Diego workforce partnership, they collect notices of layoffs or furloughs. Um, and they said that they, since February, 2020, they've received 580 notices from businesses where normally in a typical year they get 100 to 150 and those 580 accounted for 90,000 employees. And they said, it's probably far more than that because businesses don't always notify them, even though they're supposed to Speaker 1: 11:51 Now Harvard and Brown universities are tracking the number of small businesses operating in our County and their work shows that more than a third of businesses, 37% were not operating last month. Was this a surprise? Did you expect such a high number? Speaker 3: 12:06 I mean, honestly, yes, because it seems like just, you know, pretty early on in the pandemic, a lot of businesses, um, you know, businesses only, especially small businesses maybe have two to three weeks worth of cash on hand. And so if they're closed for a couple of weeks, that that could be it for them. So, you know, I think I wasn't sure what the number was going to be. And, and we may still be trying to find out exactly how many, but that estimate felt, felt about right to me. And I'm actually glad that it's not more than that. Speaker 1: 12:42 Now you visited a number of small businesses for your reporting this week. One of them was NOLA San Diego, a massage business in downtown East village. What did the owner of that business tell you about the tough choices she's had to make about trying to keep her business afloat? Speaker 3: 12:58 Her business was a good example of kind of the uncertainty of, you know, when they had the first stay at home orders and closed non-essential businesses back in the spring, she said she closed. She wasn't really always sure as a massage therapy business, you know, whether she could stay open or be closed. Was she essential? Was she non-essential? She said, she thought about getting a, an acupuncturist or a chiropractor to just come in and share her space so that then she could say that she was a medical service. So, you know, she really had a hard time navigating it. And then, you know, she, she reopened, I think in the summer for, for some time and was gearing up for the holidays, which are, she said, you know, the most important time of the year that's when people maybe gift each other massages. And then she said, Valentine's day is a really big deal for her business. Speaker 3: 13:54 And so they spent a bunch of money to get Christmas decorations and have everything all set up. And then there was, you know, the, the next, uh, stay at home order. And so she said they were only open three days in December and they, and they lost a lot of money. And so she's been trying to navigate, I think she's a good example of someone who has her family finances tied in with her business. And so she said she gets disability money from being a disabled veteran and she used some of that money to keep the business going. And then she said she has three daughters. And she sometimes took from their college fund to, to keep the business going because she just felt like if she could weather this, then the business would go back to supporting her family. And so she's kind of, you know, trying to take from the family side to keep the business going in. The hopes that later on the business will go back to, to supporting the family restaurants, Speaker 1: 14:49 Of course, are another of business that have been really hard hit. Of course, we've been able to dine out or get carry out, uh, pretty much the whole pandemic, but that doesn't always pay the bills. Part of your story profiles, a family run restaurant, El Toro grill tuckeria in city Heights. How are they surviving? Speaker 3: 15:08 Yeah, that's another example of, you know, going back and forth between being closed, then being allowed to do outdoor dining, then going back to, you know, only being able to do take out and, um, delivery. And one of the things that's so hard about that location is it sits right on alcohol and Boulevard. And so they don't, it's not like they have a big parking lot where they can expand and do outdoor dining. Like some of these other restaurants have done. So she has maybe three or four, a little tables, um, set out on alcohol and Boulevard. And she says, you know, people don't necessarily really want to eat there. It's a lot of traffic, a lot of people walking around. So it's, it's been a real struggle for her. And they have managed, um, through, in some ways getting, um, breaks from their landlord to, to weather the storm and are still going. Speaker 3: 16:00 And I think she's now very relieved that she's able to open back up. Uh, some of her indoor dining now that the County has moved back to the, to the red tier, she said, you know, even over the past few months, it seemed like a lot of restaurants kind of just stopped following the rules. And so she was saying that her customers were coming to her and saying, Hey, why aren't you guys allowing us to eat inside? Like all the other restaurants are doing. And she said, you know, I'm just trying to follow the rules. And people didn't even necessarily know that other restaurants weren't supposed to be letting people eat inside. Wow. Speaker 1: 16:34 What's the outlook for the economic recovery? How might lo how long might it take to get back what has been lost over the past year and for new businesses to start emerging? Speaker 3: 16:45 Yeah, I mean, I think that's, that's the big question. This is, you know, an unprecedented time. And so people don't necessarily know, you know, what will happen in the long-term. One of the other businesses that I profiled is project Rio collective, which is a coffee shop in paradise Hills. And that closed really early on in March or April. But now one of the co-owners is, is trying to start up a new coffee shop in the same location. So it seems like there are, you know, there's hope and that does seem like there's appetite for people to be going out and doing things as, as things loosen up. But I think, you know, we're just not sure yet what, what the long-term impact is going to be, especially as businesses rely on things like the convention center to bring in conferences and we don't yet know, you know, what, what the future of that is going to be. Speaker 1: 17:42 I've been speaking with Claire Tresor investigative reporter for KPBS, Claire. Thank you. Speaker 3: 17:47 Thank you. Could COVID-19 Speaker 1: 17:50 Eventually cost governor Gavin Newsome his political career early in the pandemic that seemed unlikely as the Democrat earned wide praise for his response, but there have been missteps some personal, like attending a dinner party during a shutdown, some professional, like the challenge of reopening schools, either way Republicans see an opening, the signature gathering for the recall is officially over and the state will soon begin verifying those signatures. KQBD Marisa Lago spoke with Newsome who was launching an all-out media blitz. Hi, Merissa welcome to the round table. Thanks so much for having me. We've seen a lot of governor Gavin Newsome this week. How is he trying to gain control of the narrative and be more vocal in defending his response to COVID-19? Speaker 4: 18:34 You know, I think that for a long time, he and other Democrats ignored this effort, hoping it, you know, might not qualify and it's looking so much more likely that it will, that we really have seen him and the broader democratic party go on the offensive. Um, they're really trying to tie this entire recall effort, not just to the Republican party, but to more fringe elements, uh, that ha you know, are part of the sort of attacks on president Donald Trump around white supremacist far right groups. Um, and so I think that he and other prominent Democrats are trying to lay the groundwork now to tell folks, Democrats, but also no party preference voters. You know, they're trying to send this message that like, Hey, stick with us. This isn't about Newsome per se. It's about our broader kind of progressive policy agenda. And they're, you know, hoping in a state where president former president Trump was very unpopular that that might stick in the coming months ahead. Speaker 1: 19:23 French laundry incident got a lot of headlines. That's when the governor, uh, went to a restaurant without a mask indoors with, uh, friends during the shutdown when he was telling people not to gather in groups, how much of a centerpiece is that one incident in this recall campaign Speaker 4: 19:39 Sort of frame that as, uh, maybe the straw that broke the camel's back, it's not the whole load, right? I mean, this is a recall effort that had started prior even to the pandemic hitting. We always see this, there's always recall efforts against governors, but I think that that combined with a couple other things that we can discuss really gave some momentum to recall backers at a time when they also lucked out with a judge's decision in terms of how much time they had. Um, and then it also coincided with a really bad surge in COVID cases. And, and it kind of doubling down on some of those shutdowns. So I don't think the French laundry incident alone would have been enough to get this recall on the ballot, but it certainly helped backers kind of make their case to, you know, Californians who were tired and sick of this pandemic and everything we've had to give up. Speaker 1: 20:27 And Merissa governor Newsome admitted his mistake with that, uh, French laundry incident. He's apologized. Are there other things that he openly regrets? Speaker 4: 20:35 So I asked him that because he's mentioned this in his state of the state speech, and he was very like, vague about what those mistakes were, um, what he told me a week ago or so was that, you know, he does regret not putting forward the vaccine rollout with a more kind of equity frame that we should have been looking at hard to hit communities first. Um, he said that he feels like the state and he could have done a better job communicating around their reasoning for why they did shut downs, why they put counties into those color-coded tiers. We're also familiar with, and quite frankly, kind of sick of at this point. Um, so I think that he kind of broad brush strokes looks back and like most of us think hindsight's 2020 and that there were missteps, but it's not as if he's saying I completely bungled this entire pandemic. He's more saying that there are areas where they could have done a better job at, and maybe that would have brought along the public a little more and headed off some of this recall anger. Speaker 1: 21:28 The recall campaign turned in 2.1 million signatures this week. They only need about 1.5 million valid signatures to actually force a recall vote. As you alluded to, normally they'd only have to get, uh, they'd only have four months to get these signatures, but instead they got nine months. Why, why did that happen? Speaker 4: 21:47 I mean, they made the case to a judge that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they needed more time that they couldn't do the kind of in-person, you know, outside of grocery stores, door to door signature gathering. Um, and the judge agreed. And I, and I do think talking to folks close to Newsome that they regret not kind of appealing that decision more forcefully, um, not going to court and trying to prevent that. Cause really, as I kind of said that time extension is why we are now faced with this possibility they would not have had the time or the money that they really raised off of a lot of that anger in the fall and into the winter, uh, to get to where they are now. So I do think that that was key. That to me is, is the sort of pivotal moment in this whole story. Speaker 1: 22:30 Former San Diego mayor, Kevin Faulkner has made reopening schools, the centerpiece of his campaign for governor either if it's, you know, on the recall ballot or if it's in the general election in 2022, does Newsome feel that pressure from, uh, opponents to show progress on the issue of schools? And is he trying to speed things along? Speaker 4: 22:50 It's hard to sort of disentangle what he would be doing already, just because we're all so ready for this to end. And, you know, parents like myself who want their kids back in classrooms. Um, but absolutely, I mean, I think the two biggest factors for Newsome politically right now are, are, you know, do we have herd immunity in the coming months are enough people vaccinated? Did the state do a good enough job with that vaccine? And then secondly are schools reopened. I really do think that if those two things are, uh, kind of buttoned up by the time we're coming into this summer and the deadline's approaching for somebody to get on the ballot against him in that recall, that could help him dramatically because there's no incentive at this point for any really big Democrats to jump in. If he looks weak, if those issues are not kind of taken care of and people are still mad, then he could face not just a challenge from someone like Faulkner or, you know, John Cox, but somebody from his own party, Speaker 1: 23:41 California is a very deeply blue state now. But uphold this week, Newsome seat is not necessarily a completely 100% safe bet. What did we learn from that poll? Speaker 4: 23:52 Yeah, this was a poll by Nexstar media group. Along with Emerson college, they found that 38% of those polls that they would vote to recall the governor 42% would vote to keep him and around 14% said they are still undecided. Um, I just, I feel like at this point, this is a pretty early, uh, question. I think we did see some kind of deep, uh, dips in Newsome's, uh, ratings, uh, approval ratings in recent months, but he was at this really sky high level. When I look at these numbers, my question is, you know, what's going to be the breakdown among Democrats and Republicans. And then who comes out to vote. Democrats have such an advantage registration wise in California, a lot of no party preference voters who almost are the same amount of the electorate as Republicans really do tend to either skew right or left, or they say they're no party preference, but they tend to vote with one party or the other. So, you know, I'm sure I know that folks who are promoting the recall love this polls, but I do think that we're going to see these numbers could change dramatically in the coming weeks and months. Speaker 1: 24:50 Now, lastly, how soon will we know if this recall vote is going to happen? And if the recall does qualify for the ballot, when would the election be? Speaker 4: 25:00 So state register or County registrars in the secretary of state are going to be validating those signatures we expect we will know mid April, whether or not they have enough valid signatures. Uh, the best guess at that point is that this could be set maybe sometime in November, there's going to be a couple of different kind of things. And, and that is really going to be up to the secretary of state and Lieutenant governor. But I think my money at this point is that we will know by the spring and that if there is a recall, it would likely be in the fall. Speaker 1: 25:29 I've been speaking with Marissa Lagos' political correspondent for our partner station. KQBD in San Francisco, Marisa. Thank you. My pleasure that wraps up this week's edition of the KPBS round table. I'd like to thank my guests, Lisa Halverstadt from voice of San Diego, Claire Traeger, sir, of KPBS news. And Merissa Lagos' from KQBD. If you missed any part of our show, you can listen any time on the KPBS round table podcast. I'm Andrew Bowen. Thanks for listening and join us next week on the round table.

The renewed focus on San Diego's homelessness crisis after a deadly crash downtown, the enormous toll on local small businesses after one year of pandemic closures, and Governor Gavin Newsom's political strategy as a recall effort gains momentum.